Jackson's "Steel Magnolia" Passes On

Sep 13, 2011

Jeanne Dzierzek, the publisher-emeritus of The (Jackson-Breathitt) County Times-Voice since 2009, who worked with this paper's predecessor – The Jackson Times - for over 34 years as advertising director, editor and publisher - and together with Louise Hatmaker and Wanda Armstrong were known as the “Last of the Steel Magnolias” of the Times, died Monday morning after a long illness. She was 85.

Jeanne passed away peacefully at the Kentucky River Medical Center in Jackson at 2:35 a.m. Monday, with her son Raymond Dzierzek of Whitesburg at her bedside.

Throughout the day Monday and Tuesday, colleagues, friends and those fortunate enough to know and love Jeanne remembered the veteran newspaperwoman for her determination, her compassion, and her lust for life.

“Jeanne was an old-school journalist. She was very hardworking, very loyal, had lots of energy, as sweet as can be, or as feisty as she can be. She remembered everyone, right down to remembering their birthdays, and lived like there was no tomorrow,” said Glenn Gray, who's the vice president of the Nolan Media Group, which owns the Times-Voice.

In a telephone interview from Manchester on Monday, Gray added, “Jeanne was one of those employees that comes along every now and then, and leaves a lasting impression. She was a 'Steel Magnolia'. She was Jeannie. I miss her.”

An independent woman with a mind of her own, Jeanne wore many hats during her Times years. She covered, reported and wrote stories for the paper, and was not above helping out others when it was time to get the Times ready for publication – which was an all-night chore back years ago.

“Our community suffered a loss today. Jeanne was a rock in the foundation of Jackson and Breathitt County,” said Elesha Richardson, a former co-worker of Jeanne's at the Times who's now with The Kentucky Explorer magazine in Jackson.

“For many years, we worked together and her job was very important to her. She was advertising manager for much of the time at the Times, and she was (the late Times Editor-Publisher-Owner) Louise Hatmaker's right hand for many years. Her determination to do a good job stood out to me most of all. She was very loyal to Louise and loyal to her friends and to Breathitt County. And she had a sense of humor too. When we worked late on Wednesday nights to get the Times out, Jeanne would always crack little jokes to cut the tension of 'putting the paper to bed' and make us laugh.”

In a story from the final edition of The Jackson Times on Jan. 15, 2009, Jeanne was asked about how she got into the habit of collecting scores of coffee mugs, which were proudly displayed in the old Times office. “About those coffee cups? It's a long story, honey. My mother went to Canada a long time ago, and they didn't have any space or money for buying anything big. So they brought back a mug. After that, everyone brought me a mug. I'm still getting' mugs, and I tell people, 'Please, no more mugs.'”

Times-Voice advertising director Cheryl Campbell began working with Jeanne at the Times in 1984, and thought the world of her. “She was very, very committed and serious about her work. And she bent over backward to help others at the paper. Jeanne also loved her family, and she always talked about her kids and grand kids. Family was very important to her, and if took a likin' to you, she'd go to bat for you anytime.”

She also had a motherly instinct for some of the younger co-workers, like Campbell, who recalled one incident. “When I was 19 or 20 years old, I'd go outside to say, the old Home Grocery on Broadway (across from the office) when it was cold and snowing, and Jeanne would say, 'Be sure to put your coat on! You'll freeze to death, or get sick!' And she said that with a serious look on her face. I would always get my jacket on, too. Even when I was older, she'd still say that. We all miss her.”

Jeanne was also civic-minded, and was a major force in the early formative years of the Breathitt County Honey Festival. To many who were members of the Jackson Fire Department in the 1970s and 1980s, Jeannie was a trusted friend who liked and cared about the firefighters, many of whom were volunteers. “They loved me, and I helped them with a lot of their fund raising, like a long time ago when they needed to buy gloves,” she recalled in the January 15, 2009 story about her in the Times. “In 1979, they had an idea to raise money with a '50s and '60s dance, a “Rock and Roll Revival.” They thought they'd raise $500. The Times helped promote it and they raised almost $2,000. In 1983 they gave me a plaque, a hat and a red jacket for helping them. I was only 14 years old back then!”

That hat and jacket hung in the dining room of Jeanne's home until she passed away.

“She was a student at Jackson City School (as Jeanne Garrett) and in her spare time worked with the Jackson Alumni Association. Jeanne would always make me aware of the latest alumni happenings up at City School. And she was a good friend of mine. She always sent me a birthday card every year,” said Beth Lemons, who's the director of Human Resources and Executive Secretary at The First National Bank of Jackson. “She worked hard on our advertising with the Times, and made sure it was the way it was supposed to be. She always tried to make it right, and it always was when Jeanne handled it. More important, she loved Jackson. She was proud of her hometown, and she let everyone know it everywhere she went.”

“She was definitely tough-as-nails. And she was also a nice lady,” Gray recalled. “Once I told Jeanne I wanted to give her a vacation. And I finally said to her, “Dammit, Jeanne, I want you out of the office. Take a vacation!” The next Monday, I called the Times and they said Jeanne wasn't there. I thought to myself, “Okay – I'll just stop in Jackson on that Wednesday and see if she has. When Wednesday came, the receptionist said Jeanne wasn't there. I went back to the rear, and in the old Times office on College Avenue and Broadway they had a back room for storage. In that back room, Jeanne had moved her office there. I saw her, and she wasn't surprised. Jeanne said to me, “Glenn, I'm back here - I'm enjoying my vacation.”

In April 1996, Lees-HCTC student Renata M. Fletcher did a paper for her Communications 200 class, in which she interviewed Jeanne. 

“The person I chose to interview, however, is living my dream...(Jeanne, and the Jackson Times) is one of the most basic, fundamental pieces of patchwork quilt that make up the little chunk of Appalachian culture known as Jackson, Ky.,” wrote Fletcher. “She always had a natural talent for writing...Jeanne's father had passed away, and she had written his obituary. She marched it into the Jackson Times office and dropped it on the desk of Louise Hatmaker for approval and publication. Ms. Hatmaker read the obituary, and then told Jeanne that it was very good. In a blink of an eye, the harried Hatmaker thrust pages of copy into Jeanne's hands and said, 'Come to work part-time'.”

Fletcher's paper stated, “Within a short time, part-time became full-time...Jeanne went to work for the Times, and the rest, as they say, is newspaper history...she voluntarily returned to school and earned her GED, (and) she learned how to drive a car in her 40s...Jeanne told Fletcher, “'My only regret is age. I was a late bloomer in the business...I thoroughly enjoyed it'. (Her job had) everything to do with deep, intense personal satisfaction that most of us can only dream about. In my opinion of Life 101, Jeanne Dzierzek is the richest person on Earth. God bless her.”

In addition to her son Raymond, Jeanne is survived by her daughter, Sue Lanning of Louisville, along with eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Visitation will be held Tuesday and Wednesday from 5 – 7 p.m. at the Breathitt Funeral Home in Jackson, with the funeral Thursday at 11 a.m., also at the Breathitt Funeral Home with Rev. Emmitt Campbell officiating. Her burial will follow at the Jackson Cemetery.